Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Australia's sad moral decline


I wrote the following post in a fit of sarcastic whimsey.

I did wonder at the time if anyone would misinterpret me. My old mate Neil did, I think, in his comment on this post. Typically, he did not hoe in, but instead responded in his usual gentle fashion. Neil is not always gentle, some of his comments on Mr Howard could hardly be described as gentle, but he is always civilised in conversation.

I will comment further at the end of the post, but a little later because I have to cook tea for my wife and daughters. I would hardly describe my girls as examples of moral decline!

The Post

When I fired up the computer the first things that came up was one of those on-line polls on ninemsn. The question? Should all police be drug tested.

Of course, I voted no at once. I was fascinated to discover that following my vote, I was one of 1,581 people who had voted no as compared to 22,019 who had voted yes. Quite clearly, the problem of drug abuse including alcohol in the police force is far worse than I had realised.

Mind you, it's bad in sport too. There the problem has got so bad that the Australian Prime Minister feels that there is a moral, already in some cases a legal, obligation on sporting bodies to test not just for for performance enhancing but also recreational drugs. Mr Howard clearly feels that the problem of drugs in the community and the consequent moral decline has become so bad that something needs to be done.

The problem starts with the young. All Australian Governments have been forced to tighten up the laws about young people and crime, removing previous legal limitations about process and sentencing. This Australia wide problem of youth crime has to be dealt with.

Further, moral risk extends beyond crime. We have been forced to tighten laws dealing with underage drinking, with driving,

The problem is not limited to the young, nor can we blame them.

The problem of child abuse has become so bad that not only do we have rafts of new laws, restrictions, regulations and checks, but every person running for public office in NSW has to provide a statement that they are not a child abuser. In the last election, these were the only official pieces of information about candidates published on the Government web site. I was quite reassured.

This problem of moral decline is clearly not limited to the young. Apart from problems of child abuse, anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that Australians at every level and over every age break more laws than ever before. A cynic might argue that this is simply a function of an increase in the quantity of laws and regulations. Yet the objective evidence shows a clear rise in the incidence of law breaking.

I won't go on. We live in an age when performance indicators are all. I deal with them often, putting them in tables so that performance can be measured. Some of these performance reports run for a hundred pages.

On just about every objective measurement that I can find linked in some ways to morals, our national performance has been declining. We face a moral crisis.


The trigger for this post was indeed the question of compulsory drug testing for the police. I knew in voting no that I would be in a minority. I was, however, surprised at the size of the majority in favour of drug testing. The attempted irony in the post lay in in the linking of things together to present a picture.

An external observer, say an anthropologist from Mars, trying to interpret our society and working just from the media and from official statements could be forgiven for concluding that we were a society in moral decline. It would be hard for it - do they have gender on Mars? - to conclude otherwise. A simple textual analysis of the material covered in almost any of our major papers would force that conclusion.

The conclusion would be reinforced if the observer then took the last NSW election campaign as test case study and examined what was said. The case would become apparently overwhelming if the observer then looked at official statistics such as the rise in the prison population.

The problem for our Martian observer lies in the fact that the way events, activities and issues are presented, interpreted, discussed and responded to is a function of the social frame set by prevailing community attitudes, attitudes that can conflict.

Take any newspaper as an example. The paper selects and presents stories that it thinks will appeal to its particular readership. If it gets it right, then circulation goes up. But in so doing, it reinforces the views of its readers. Political leaders respond to the views of the paper and of its readers, creating another reinforcing interaction.

Community attitudes shift. As they do, so does the selection and interpretation of issues.
Take the role of women as an example.

I grew up at a time when the women's movement was just getting underway. I see the gains, but also the conflicts. My wife's generation comes from the movement's high water mark. Some of this generation wonder why and how their movement lost its impact. Our daughters have internalised the gains and in a sense just moved on.

Just at present, Australian society appears to be going through a deeply conservative and in some ways fearful phase marked by aversion to risk and a desire to enforce protective controls. This has its own in-built tensions and contradictions.

Take, as an example, our attitudes to law and regulation.

The desire to protect, to control, to punish, has led to an explosion in the volume of law. That is the reason why such a high proportion of the Australian population are, in fact, law breakers. It is very hard in daily life not to break some law or regulation, even if it is only the traffic regulations. So we have actually become selective in what we comply with.

The desire to protect, to control, has also led to concepts such as truth in sentencing and three strikes and you are out. In turn, all this has led to something approaching an explosion in the prison population.

This is where our martian observer would be mislead. I know of no evidence that the incidence of crime has actually increased. We are dealing with an outcome created by social attitudes.

In my view, we have now reached the point where our collective obsession with control and risk aversion is now imposing long term social and economic costs.

We have just had the first death because of Sydney's water restrictions. A sixty-six year old man was watering his front lawn with a hand-held hose. A passer by reprimanded him for breaking the water restrictions. In fact he was not and, losing his temper, he turned the hose on the passer by. The passer by then attacked the waterer, knocking him to the ground and apparently kicking him. The sixty-six year old died, and the other man has been charged with murder.

This is just a small symptom of a bigger problem.

Our jails are essentially post-graduate schools for crime. Further, the prison population is heavily weighted towards certain socio-economic groups.

In NSW if you do not or cannot pay a fine, your license is suspended, an action allowed by modern computer systems. If you drive while your license is suspended, you may end up in jail. You may also end up in jail for not paying the fine or fines.

Many Australians would say fair enough. The problem is that those in both groups tend to be people from already disadvantaged backgrounds, the social cohort that already contributes the majority of the prison population. In combination, these things are creating long term social problems that will impose costs over and beyond the immediate costs to the justice system.

These costs are already manifesting themselves in some Sydney suburbs.

We have always had disadvantaged areas. but, we have not (I think) ever before had such concentrations of disadvantage.

I could go on to trace the costs through other areas of life. At this stage I will simply conclude that my post was an ironic response to what I see as a major issue.


ninglun said...

I am always wary of ideas like moral decline, Jim -- not that I am utterly rejecting what you say. There are undoubtedly areas and groups where the level of dysfunction is quite horrendous, but on the other hand we constantly hear the bad news and rarely the good. Surely that skews our perception.

There are paradoxes too. Mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse, for example, has undoubtedly made DOCS less able to function. Forty years ago at Cronulla I encountered -- indirectly -- the first example of probable incest observable in the changed behaviour of a Year 7 girl I was teaching. I mentioned it to my superiors who did nothing about it; it was just assumed 1) there was nothing we could do about it and 2) that was what happened in certain parts of the district and always had. Of course that was not satisfactory, but the case never made any statistics and God knows what became of the girl.

Surely you can remember in the more innocent past underage drinking going unnoticed, to take another example.

I know you are no friend of excessive legislation and regulation. What do you see as the solution to this moral decline, assuming it is as you say.

This old post is kind of relevant, I think.

Jim Belshaw said...

I will have to add a postscript to this post, Neil, in case people do take me seriously!

Part of my point was that if we judged just by the stats and policy approaches now around, the country must face a linked moral crisis.

Seeing that you have taken me seriously, but in the wrong way, I will calrify tonight!

ninglun said...

I will be on my guard against future outbreaks of irony, Jim. ;)

Jim Belshaw said...

Perhaps I should put up a sign!